In the weeks leading up to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, US intelligence analysts attempted to predict the outcome of the impending war. Their assessment was grim: Kyiv would fall in two days and up to 50,000 civilians could die, sources told The Washington Post. Fortunately, none of these predictions were accurate. The war is now in its sixth month and less than 5,500 civilians have died since the end of July – a tragic number, but far from the expected catastrophic toll.
Security analysts now say they underestimated the will of the Ukrainian people and the impact of foreign military aid in the war. The United States and its NATO allies – a security alliance of Western nations – have provided Ukraine with billions of dollars in arms, intelligence support and training. On Tuesday, Congress approved a billion-dollar security plan for Ukraine – the largest yet – bringing the total pledged since President Joe Biden took office to nearly $10 billion.
What does a billion dollars buy? The Ministry of Defense has released a mind-boggling shopping list which includes thousands of anti-aircraft and anti-tank missiles, more than half a million explosive cartridges for long-range guns such as howitzers, 20 Mi-17 military helicopters , dozens of tactical missile vehicles and nearly 60 million rounds of small arms ammunition, to name a few. Ukraine will also receive surface-to-air missile systems, laser-guided rocket systems and hundreds of Switchblade drones, sometimes called kamikaze drones because they crash into their targets.
Weapons helped level the battlefield. For example, at the beginning of the invasion, Javelins, portable anti-tank missile systems, helped Ukraine to stop heavy armored columns – lines of tanks that constitute the vanguard of the Russian army. With longer-range systems, such as vehicle-mounted HIMARS, Ukraine can hit targets up to 70 km (about 43 mi) away. This allows Ukraine to intercept supply lines and facilities with relative safety.
Since the start of the war, President Volodymyr Zelensky has called on NATO to establish a no-fly zone to prevent Russian planes from entering Ukrainian airspace. Fearing that this could draw NATO members into an armed conflict with Russia, the alliance has refused the request, according to the Wall Street Journal. But surface-to-air missiles, such as Stingers and NASAMS, allow Ukraine to impose makeshift no-fly zones around operating bases and key positions.
The latest package even includes 700 drones which are being put into operation for the first time. These are the Phoenix Ghost Tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems and work similarly to Switchblades.
How effective were these weapons? Colin Kahl, the chief adviser to the secretary of defense, recently estimated that Russia had suffered up to 80,000 casualties, including dead and wounded. Estimates for the deaths alone range from 15,000 by the CIA to nearly 43,000 by the Ukrainian government, according to Newsweek. Much of it is conjecture, but most analyzes conclude that the war is weighing heavily on Russia (although TASS, a Russian state-run media company, quotes officials as saying that by March Russia had made less than 1,400 dead).
The United States does not have the best record of military aid. Billions of dollars worth of weapons have been diverted elsewhere. In Afghanistan, for example, anti-aircraft missiles ended up in the hands of insurgent groups. But Ukraine has been a success thanks to institutional changes in recent years, according to analysis by RAND, a think tank. Previous laws interfered with the purchase of military equipment from abroad, but Zelenskyy changed them when he came to power.
Shipping cartloads of military equipment to a foreign conflict is risky. This could lead to the spread of war beyond Ukraine and increase the possibility of nuclear war, according to a report by analysts from the Stimson Center, a Washington, DC-based think tank. Weapons can also end up on black markets and end up being used against the United States and its allies. Counterterrorism operatives, familiar with how missile systems have been used against US forces and their allies in Afghanistan and Iraq, fear it could happen in Ukraine.
Willpower over firepower?
Defense officers note that military assistance will only go to the extent that the Ukrainian people have the will to fight. It’s probably closer to a reciprocal relationship: seeing a javelin soar through the sky and plunge into an enemy tank lifts the spirits of Ukrainian soldiers, urging them to keep going.
Morale is high right now. This week, an airbase in Saki, Crimea, was the target of the most catastrophic attack on Russian forces to date – nine fighter jets were destroyed. Ukraine has not claimed responsibility, but a government official said the attack was carried out by Ukrainian special forces. If so, Ukraine goes from defense to attack. The war “began with Crimea and must end with Crimea – its liberation,” Zelenskyy said, according to BBC News.
The most likely outcome, however, will be a stalemate. To win, Ukraine must make war unaffordable for Putin (estimates vary, but it costs him a fortune). Foreign military aid will help with this end, but as the war drags on, its human toll will continue to rise.